The Republic of Nothing
Lesley Choyce (1994)
Ever loved a book? I mean, really loved a book? Loved it so much that your passion overwhelms your common sense, and you'd punch another human being rather than hear a negative word said about it? You know, reading that over, it occurs to me that I might be overstating my case a wee tad, inadvertently lumping myself in with Twi-hards and religious fanatics (don't ask me which is worse).My father declared the independence of Whalebone Island on March 21, 1951, the day I was born. It was a heady political time even on the Eastern Shore of Nova Scotia. New, pint-sized nations were emerging all over forgotten corners of the globe and my old man decided that the flowering of independence should not pass us by.
So, scale it back, and start again.
The Republic of Nothing is a masterpiece.
There, that about covers it, short, sweet, to the point, and leaves no room for contrary opinion. Perfect.
Again, I'm pushing it, I know. Blame Lesley Choyce. He's the one who wrote the damnable thing. He's the one who overwhelmed my senses and actually made me shed a tear or two in between honest-to-Buddha guffaws. It's his fault, I'm just an innocent literary bystander.
The Republic of Nothing is hardly an unknown book, being taught in universities and even claiming the #32 spot on Atlantic Canada's 100 Greatest Books. Clearly the novel has its fans, and I'm late to the party. But still, I had never even heard of it until I was taking a brief visual accounting of the shelves of Goose Lane Editions (where I am now publicist, thank you very much). It looked interesting, so I began to peruse the pages.
300 and some odd pages later, I was reeling.
Republic is the bildungsroman of Ian MacQuade, born on the Nova Scotia island of Whalebone. Upon his birth, his father Everett declares the island a sovereign nation, "The Republic of Nothing," which seems to go over fairly well with the locals. Ian's father is not the only dreamer in his family; his mother, found adrift by his father on the open ocean, bedraggled and memory wiped clean, is in tune with various invisible powers, and is gifted with a mild telepathy. Whalebone seems a land predetermined to attract the odd, the lost, the freewheeling, and the strange. It is an island where the bones of Vikings intermingle with those of mammoths, where liars find themselves, and where a man who helped invent the atomic bomb might find solace in the stars.
There is a whole sub-genre of Canadian novels that celebrate lovable eccentrics (see: Wayne Johnston's The Divine Ryans, Lynn Coady's Strange Heaven, Miriam Toews' A Complicated Kindness), and while Choyce certainly embraces the form, Republic quickly expands as the story crosses years and decades, transforming from the tale of a young man into the chronicle of an age. The upbeat fifties give way to the turbulent sixties as Choyce brings the world to Whalebone's shore and broadens the narrative with Dickensian twists of plot that delight and astonish. Ian's father becomes swept up in the power of politics, becoming a major play in the Nova Scotia conservative party. The Vietnam War makes itself felt, threatening to destroy Ian's romance with Gwen, the daughter of the atomic physicist. Republic has at its heart a deeply personal story, but its mixture of tiny moments and personal triumphs with grand themes and the expanse of time make it the equal of the best of John Irving.
I realize I have not gone into a lot of detail on Choyce's prowess with prose, his effortless achievements at character and nuance. It's been a few months since I completed Republic, and I wasn't taking notes at the time, more than content to simply have the story told to me. I've read quite a few books in my time, many of which I admire, fewer I will profess to love, and even fewer I will love without reservation, reading over and over again every few years to reacquaint myself with characters and places I haven't visited in awhile, but which made an enormous impact on me. It's a short list, but The Republic of Nothing belongs on it.
If that isn't a masterpiece, I don't know what is.
VERDICT: MONKEY LOVES (duh)